Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Historical Drama

Joan of Arc (1900)

A while ago, I discussed the Cecil B. DeMille version of Joan of Arc’s story, but he was not the first master film maker to take it on. In fact, Joan’s countryman Georges Méliès beat him to the punch by over fifteen years, and did in in (hand-tinted) color, too!

The movie (as we have it today) begins with the visitation of young Joan by angels who tell her of her mission to save France from occupation by the English. We see different angels appear before her and she falls prostrate before them. She then goes to tell her parents, who seem quite distressed by the news. The next scene shows the gate at Vaucouleurs, where the guard at first seems disinclined to admit her, but he is convinced when she demonstrates her faith in God and France, and he summons other guards to escort her to the master of the house. The tableau for this scene shows a raucous party going on inside the castle, with Robert de Baudricourt leading the festivities, while a fat curate toasts and drinks from a flagon. When Joan comes in, Baudricourt mocks her and invites her to sit on his knee, but her faith overcomes him and he agrees to give her soldiers to support her cause.

The commentary on my DVD refers to the next scene as “the endless parade,” although it is only about a minute and a half long. Joan rides a horse in armor, displaying her weapons, and leads soldiers through the streets of the city. Extras in period costume march behind her, extending the small number of extras by having the same people, sometimes in different costumes, march past repeatedly. The next scene shows the crowning of Charles VII in Reims Cathedral, which I suppose the original French audience knew without being told was a result of Joan’s victory at Orléans. The movie then deipicts its one battle scene, the Siege of Compiègne. Here, the French attack a gate in front of a castle, but while they are doing so, English soldiers come out and grab Joan, taking her inside the castle. The other soldiers valiantly attack the castle, despite gunfire from the arrow slits, and throw up siege ladders to take it, but they are unable to rescue Joan.

In prison, Joan has another dream in which she sees her visions again. Taken to the interrogation, Joan refuses to sign a retraction, and is condemned as a heretic. In the Rouen marketplace, Joan is burned at the stake. The wood carrier at the execution, bringing in fuel for the burning, dies on the spot from the fumes. In a final apotheosis scene, Joan rises to heaven, where she is greeted by God and the saints.

There is a missing scene at the beginning which apparently establishes Joan as a simple peasant girl leading sheep. I suspect there may be some other missing footage as well (the Star Films catalog lists it as running five minutes longer than the version I’ve seen), but the film was considered lost until 1982, so we’re lucky to have it at all. At more than ten minutes long, it almost qualifies as a “feature film” for its time. George Méliès played seven roles, or one in nearly every scene. Joan of Arc, although widely considered a saint in France, was not actually beatified until 1909, and not technically canonized until 1920 (four years after the DeMille version). This film in a number of ways reminds me of Guy’sThe Birth, the Life, and the Death of Christ,” and despite the use of camera trickery for the Angelic visitations and Joan’s entry into heaven, has a much more serious tone than other works of Méliès at the time. The film includes some shots where actors move closer to the camera than is usual for Méliès, I think simply because of the crowded sets, but the effect is to give us some medium-shots for once.  Along with “The Dreyfus Affair,” it shows that Méliès regarded film as an educational medium as well as entertainment, and that he had a broader range than is often assumed.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, Jeanne d’Alcy

Run Time: 10 Min, 18secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Joan the Woman (1916)

Cecil B. DeMille enters the arena of the historical epic with this depiction of France’s most famous saint, starring Geraldine Farrar, who had been very successful in “Carmen” the previous year. While a bit rough in places, it is likely to be a major contender in this year’s Century Awards.

joan_the_womanThis is one of those silent movies that, unfortunately, begins with several minutes of intertitles explaining the plot. Most silent directors did their best to avoid this, but DeMille may have felt that because he was dealing with such a “serious” subject, his audiences would need a little priming to get into the mood. Anyway, after five minutes of introductory reading, we finally get to an unnecessary wraparound story. We begin in the trenches in France in 1916, where a young English soldier is digging in the dirt wall for some reason, and pulls out a sword, apparently buried there since the fifteenth century. He speculates that some “queer bloke” must have wielded it, and then responds to a call for volunteers from an officer. The officer is looking for someone to carry a very unwieldy bomb across no-man’s-land to destroy an enemy trench. He tells the soldier to think about it until midnight before making a decision whether to take on the suicide mission. Once back in his barracks, the soldier sees a vision of Joan of Arc and the real movie finally begins!

joan-the-woman2 Read the rest of this entry »

Intolerance (1916)

Probably the most talked about film of 1916, “Intolerance” remains a kind of enigma to film historians. Despite the large amount of ink and computer bytes shed writing about it (see the bibliography at the end of this review for a small sample), it seems no better understood than most of the more typical releases of the year. What is this movie that has inspired so much discussion and debate? Is it one of the most important movies in history or just a giant flop?


Quick Summary

Regular readers of my blog know I usually begin each review with a recap of the action from the film – I don’t worry too much about “spoiling” 100-year-old movies, but if you want to see it first, you can always scroll down to the link and then come back and read the review. In this case, I’m going to be a bit less specific about the sequence of events and just give a summary of the stories, not accounting for the editing or sequence. In part,  this is because there are several different movies today calling themselves “Intolerance,” and deciding which is the “most authentic” is one of the sources of debate among scholars. It is complicated by the fact that the director, D.W. Griffith, kept making changes for each new re-release of the movie, beginning shortly after the premier on September 5, 1916. Some have argued that the 1917 re-release is more definitive, or even that the version Griffith reconstructed in 1922 after chopping up the print to release one of the storylines as a separate film is the most accurate. In 1990 the Museum of Modern Art attempted to reconstruct the movie based on the score written by Joseph Carl Breil for the opening night, in an attempt to get back to an “original” form, but it needs to be noted that this reconstruction is highly debated, and that it is possible that most viewers in 1916 were seeing a quite different movie. Read the rest of this entry »

Portrait of Lady Anne (1912)

Florence LaBadie has the title role in this one-reel morality play and costume drama from Thanhouser. Her acting presence shines through, and we get a look at what made her one of the first movie stars.

Portrait of Lady AnneThe movie begins in 1770, when the portrait is first hung in the home of a genteel colonial family. White men in blackface play the servants, and Florence takes center stage as she watches her own image hung in a prominent part of the house. Her suitor comes over, and, with her father’s indulgent permission, they take a walk together on the grounds. While they are out together, however, another woman rides up on horseback and greets them. An intertitle tells us that Anne is unreasonably jealous when her fiancé goes over to speak to this other woman and returns her dropped riding crop to her. Once the other woman has ridden off, she removes her engagement ring and throws it on the ground, walking off in a huff while her beau looks despondent. Soon, she’s entertaining another man and receives a note from the first telling her of his intention to go off to war with a broken heart. She immediately agrees when the new man proposes. The next scene shows her rocking the cradle of their child, but a scene of her first fiancé’s presumed death on the battlefield plays as a superimposition over her shoulder. She collapses from regret.

Portrait of Lady Anne1Now, the scene moves to modern times, and Florence plays an ancestor of the original Lady Anne. She shows off her resemblance to the portrait at a large party, and invites all the other girls to put on period costumes from the wardrobe. She dresses like her own ancestor in the portrait. The 140-year-old problem begins again when she sees her new boyfriend dancing with another woman, and she runs upstairs. While she’s sulking, the “spirit of Lady Anne” comes down from the portrait and dances with her man, now wanting to heal the mistake made so long ago. Modern Florence climbs down the trestle and sees him kiss the image of herself, then sees the portrait without its picture and somehow figures out what it going on. She manages to forgive him and the spirit is able to rest once again.

Portrait of Lady Anne2This very simple little film actually shows how sophisticated movies were getting by 1912. The story is simple enough, but here we see special effects, cross-cutting, and creative camera work, just to get across a very simple idea. The costumes may well have eaten up much of the budget, and I almost get the sense that this story was written to justify using as many colonial-era costumes (especially women’s costumes) as possible. The actors all seem to enjoy the opportunity to dress up and show their ability to act in the unfamiliar garb. I was impressed by the number of camera set-ups as well. The ballroom is actually seen from several angles, including from outside the window, signaling a very sophisticated approach to space, as opposed to the usual stages with entrances and exits that we see from this period. Finally, while most of the editing is chronological, the sequence in which the spirit of Lady Anne comes out of the portrait and is observed by her descendant is edited in simultaneous time, and this allows the tension to build as we wonder if the two Florences will somehow meet and interact.

Portrait of Lady Anne3Beyond the technical aspects, the other thing this movie highlights is the star power of Florence LaBadie, who truly lights up the screen in each scene. She goes through several challenging emotional shifts, as she has to become “insanely jealous” quite rapidly after being happy and contented, then show us her regrets and her sorrow, as well as keeping the two characters reasonably clear for the audience. She pulls all of it off well, using expressions and body language to express what words cannot. I only thought she was a bit overstated at one point – when the modern descendant sees the black portrait and mouths “Oh! I get it” to the camera, but on the whole she is a model of the best in silent film acting. It’s easy to see how her fans came to know and love her, even though Thanhouser refused to credit their actors publicly at the time.

Director: Lloyd Lonergan

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Florence LaBadie, William Russell, Harry Benham

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here (also on vimeo: here).

On the Barricade (1907)

Alternate Title: Sur le barricade

This is the last narrative short I have from the collection of Alice Guy movies I’ve been reviewing since March. While most of them have been comedies (the ones with any story at all, that is), this is at least an attempt at a more dramatic, even action-packed movie, with a sentimental ending.

On the BarricadeA young man and his aging mother are eating a meal in a house whose door allows a view into the street. We can see uniformed men rushing by with guns, but the pair continue to eat. An intertitle reminds us that “Even during the revolution, it was necessary to provide for the household.” The young man gets up and takes an empty milk bottle. His mother urges him not to go out, she fears for what will happen if he gets caught in the fighting, but he insists. He goes out and we cut to a shot of some people building a makeshift barricade in the street, using parts of a wagon, bricks, baskets, and barrels. The young man approaches from behind the barricade, and the revolutionaries try to shoo him off, warning that the army is approaching from the other direction, but he says he needs to get milk for his mother (another intertitle), and they let him pass rather than argue further. The barricade keeps going up after he goes through.

Now we see a corner further along, with a large factory in the background. The boy runs up to the corner, and peers around as another group of revolutionaries retreats, forced back by the advancing troops. We see three of them get shot before the others retreat, the boy running along with them. They run down an alley, but the army pursues, and soon we are back at the barricade. The army is shooting down the revolutionaries, and the boy picks up one of their guns, but the soldiers quickly leap the ramshackle affair and take the survivors prisoner. At the officer’s command, hasty firing squad is set up, but the boy pleads to be able to take the milk to his mother, and gives his word to return. The officer grants him permission, and the boy runs off. We see his mother, pacing and fretting at his absence, and then he runs in with the milk. He puts the milk on the counter and hugs his mother, but then he insists he has to go. He goes back out the door and she follows. Meanwhile, the firing squad are finishing off some other captives, and the boy runs up just after one is shot. The officer seems surprised at the boy’s return, but doesn’t hesitate to order his men to take aim. Then the mother runs in front of the guns, and the soldiers refuse to fire at an old woman. She pleads with the officer and even he seems moved, ordering the men to volte-face and sending the boy and woman away free.

On the Barricade1There’s a continuity problem with this movie, in that the boy, coming from his mother’s house, first approaches the barricade from behind, but when he returns to the firing squad, he and his mother approach from the other direction (they exit back in the original direction, walking towards the camera). This doesn’t really make sense, unless he’s running around the block for some reason before coming back, but I don’t know how sensitive a 1907 audience would be to this detail. It would depend largely on how careful theatrical productions were to match exits with entrances. Of all the French movies I’ve seen from this period, this is the first to be set during the revolution of 1789, perhaps the most important event in European history to this time. From that point of view, it’s interesting to think about how Guy went about selecting locations in Paris that would look enough like they did 100+ years earlier to work for the audience – although I’m not certain that the factory with the name painted on the side was likely in 1789. This movie avoids dealing with political questions or the international implications in favor of a small, human story that reminds me of the sort of war movies D.W. Griffith made during his time at Biograph. It’s a bit hard to imagine anyone returning to a firing squad after being allowed to leave unguarded, but this is presumably meant to heighten our sense that the boy is honorable and good, and thus make us identify with him. For me, it doesn’t necessarily work as well as the bizarre comedies where inanimate objects come to life and so forth, but it is an interesting piece.

Director: Alice Guy, possibly with help from Louis Feuillade

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 4 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895)

Execution of Mary

Alternate Title: The Execution of Mary Stuart

The debate rages boringly on about which movie is the “first narrative film.” I don’t really think knowing which is “first” is all that important (though I’d submit “The Sprinkler Sprinkled” as a good candidate for having a beginning, a middle, and an end); what’s interesting is the way that early filmmakers seem to have constantly edged towards telling stories, even when their technology was frankly inadequate to the task. This movie probably has a good claim on being the first to recreate a historical event, and also is certainly one of the first “trick films,” which uses an edit to achieve a special effect (sorry, Méliès fans, this came before he even had a camera). What we see is a group of people surrounding a chopping block, with one dressed as Mary, who kneels and puts her head on the block as the executioner raises his axe. Then, a quick edit and he lowers the axe to chop off a doll’s head, holding the head up high for all to see. Again, interest in the kinetoscope was already waning in 1895, so the thrilling and gory subject matter may have been an effort to drum up business.

Director: Alfred Clark

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 28 seconds.

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Agony of Byzantium (1913)

Agony of Byzance

Alternate Titles: “L’Agonie de Byzance,” “The Agony of Byzance”

This will be the last Feuillade film I look at for a while – at least until I get around to watching “Les Vampires” later this year. It is the newest of all the short, non-“Fantômas” pieces I have reviewed, being released in October, 1913. In it, Feuillade attempts to create a historical epic on a very limited budget and entirely on indoor sets. He almost succeeds, but I have to point out that movies like “Judith of Bethulia” were shot around the same time and that battle scenes had been staged far more effectively in both “The Massacre” and “The Battle at Elderbush Gulch.” In other words, this is one area where D.W. Griffith surpassed Feuillade, although the freedom of using exteriors and his larger budget were surely factors. However, it also lacks human interest and compelling characters, which Feuillade was entirely capable of generating in other instances. The movie followed the First Balkan War, and at least one historian has seen its subject matter – the fall of Byzantium to the Turks in 1453 – as a political statement on contemporary events. Indeed, a year later Turkey and France would be on opposite sides of World War One, although most French propaganda would focus on the more immediate threat of Germany by that time.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Starring: Luitz-Morat, Renée Carl, Albert Reusy

Run Time: 29 Min, 38 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Cabiria (1914)


Director: Giovanni Pastrone

This could possibly have been the most immediately influential film of the year 1914. Often falsely credited as the “first feature film” or as the “first use of tracking shots,” it most probably introduced those concepts to many audiences and apparently also inspired Fritz Lang and D.W. Griffith at key points in their careers. Viewers familiar with Lang’s “Metropolis” will readily recognize the Temple of Moloch in this film, for example. It also introduced audiences to the Italian hero “Maciste,” who would star in literally dozens of “sword & sandal” films in the following century (many of them have been re-titled to the more familiar “Hercules” for English-speaking audiences). Here, he is cast as a slave, serving a Roman who has infiltrated Carthage during the Punic Wars. It’s also interesting in political/historical terms, for having been written by Gabriele D’Annunzio, the poet who would later inspire the early fascists with his symbolic occupation of Dalmatia. It would be a mistake to see this as a straight nationalist propaganda film, but the action and adventure is certainly steeped in the glory and romanticism of ancient Rome, and includes tropes, such as the salute and the fasces itself, that would later become important symbols. Be that as it may, the translated inter-titles, and especially the pagan prayers, are quite striking in their poetry.

Run Time: 120 minutes

You can watch it for free: here.

Independenta Romaniei (1912)


Director: Aristide Demetriade

It’s remarkable enough that there was even a film camera in Romania in 1912, never mind someone with the resources and wherewithal to make and distribute a historical epic. The language barrier was minimal, since intertitles were used very sparingly, with long sequences introduced with only a few words, which I could often guess at from my knowledge of romance languages generally. There is no camera movement at all, and so far as I can recall the only medium shot was close to the beginning, where we see a peasant girl tearfully saying goodbye to her lover when he enters the army. Otherwise, the entire film was shot in wide angles, most shots being images of a battlefield, on which we watch the armies advance, fight, and retreat. There is no real effort to isolate characters or tell personal stories, although the high-ranking officers on both sides are named in the credits. This was clearly intended as a nationalist propaganda film, and it must have been reasonably successful or we wouldn’t have it around today, but for modern viewers it is mostly a curiosity piece.

You can watch it for free: here

Run time: 82min (note: this may be a cut version, since wikipedia lists it at possibly 120 min)

Cleopatra (1912)


Director: Charles L. Gaskill

Starring: Helen Gardner

This is the longest 1912 film I’ve watched so far – at 88 minutes, it qualifies for “feature length.” The editing was slower-paced than some movies of the period, and the action was distinctly stagey – long shots of square sets that actors enter/exit and move about on, with no camera moves and very few closeups. The exception, interestingly, was the Battle of Actium, where closeups and rapid edits were used to mask the lack of convincing special effects. The romance of Cleopatra and Marc Antony is one of the oldest soap operas in the world, and this version is fairly true to the Shakespeare version, although without the dialogue. Helen Gardner, who was 28 at the time, was apparently a big deal – her name is on every intertitle. This is noteworthy because the Hollywood “star system” was still in very early stages, with some studios (notably Biograph) refusing to acknowledge actors’ names in their films.

You can watch it for free: here